After two weeks of OTA practices, most eyes have been on the Washington Football Team’s newest veterans and young additions. But even as coach Ron Rivera has stressed competition across the board to try to lead the team beyond its 7-9 finish last season, the most important position battle for Washington this offseason may be between a pair of familiar faces.
Kyle Allen and Taylor Heinicke will likely be duking it out for the backup quarterback job, a role that proved to be pivotal last year in propelling Washington to an NFC East title and the playoffs for the first time in five years. The team cycled through four different starters because of performance issues (Dwayne Haskins) and injuries (Allen and Alex Smith).
“I don’t want to do that again. I’d rather not do that,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said Thursday. “But you never know in this league. Everyone’s got to be ready.”
The addition of Ryan Fitzpatrick, who boasts 16 seasons of experience and has a $10.54 million salary cap charge, provides them a presumed starter. But QB2 still lacks clarity.
Allen, who was promoted in place of Haskins in Week 5 last year, started four games before going on injured reserve with a complex ankle injury. He returned to the team on an exclusive rights tender, which includes a one-year salary of $850,000, but he’s still working his way back to full health.
In the first two weeks of OTAs, he’s been in the rotation with the second- and third-team offenses, but he remains limited and still has a slight limp when he runs. His goal, he said, is to be fully healthy by training camp — and he believes it’s doable.
Heinicke, whose lone start for Washington last year was its playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, re-signed on a two-year contract that has an average value of $2.375 million. He, too, suffered an injury — a shoulder injury — but it didn’t require surgery, and he said his offseason regimen that included adding 15 pounds of “good weight” aided its recovery.
The two have years of experience with Turner, a quarterbacks coach turned coordinator who worked with Heinicke at Minnesota and Allen at Carolina. They know the system. They know the staff. They also know the life of a backup, who is always one play away from starting and always fighting for additional reps to continue their careers.
“I come into every year understanding that you gotta prove it,” Allen said. “You’ve got to come out and earn it. I don’t think it’s different than my rookie year when I was an undrafted fourth-string. You just gotta come out and earn it every time. So I just try and come in with that mindset that every day is not promised.”
Heinicke has more job security now than he ever has in the NFL, and certainly more than he did last season, when he was signed off the street while working toward his degree in mathematics at Old Dominion University. He was Washington’s emergency “quarantine” quarterback who would inevitably be called upon when Smith suffered a leg injury that sidelined him for the playoffs.
Heinicke’s performance in that loss — when he held his own against the Bucs’ defense to complete 59.1 percent of his passes for 306 yards and accounted for two touchdowns (one rushing) — earned him another shot.
“This is the first year where I feel like I kind of have two feet in the door so to speak,” Heinicke said Wednesday. “The last five years, I feel like I’ve had one foot in the door and have been clawing my way to try to make the team. Having a two-year contract, I feel a little sense of security, but it doesn’t change the way I approach the game or approach practice. I go out there and try to get better every day and see what happens.”
Rivera has repeatedly cited his “mistake” last year when he spurned any competition at quarterback and gave Haskins the entirety of first-team reps in training camp.
Fitzpatrick’s arrival provides the team a presumed starter but leaves Heinicke and Allen, as well as Steven Montez, an undrafted quarterback who spent the majority of last season on the practice squad, in the mix for the backup QB position — a job that, based on Washington’s recent history, may be more aptly labeled as the starter-in-waiting.
“Those guys, what they got to do is they got to make consistent decisions and throw the ball accurately. I know that sounds simple, but it’s not,” Turner said. “If more people could do it, there’d be a lot more good quarterbacks out there. And that’s what we need to see over and over again. Don’t put the ball in harm’s way, and when things go bad, get us to the next play.
“And then, almost more importantly, when things are good, we need them to put the ball in the right spot so we get the most out of every positive play that we have. And that’s an area we got to improve with the big plays and explosive plays. That’s a big part of it, just making the right decision and throwing the ball accurately.”
Last year, Washington ranked 26th in big plays (passes of 20-plus yards and rushes of 10 or more yards) with 86. They were 25th in scoring (20.9 points) and 29th in giveaways (27).
“We need to be more explosive,” Turner said. “We need to create some more big plays. And if we do that, everything else kind of takes care of itself.”
Next week, Washington will hold a three-day mandatory minicamp, then go on break for roughly seven weeks before the start of training camp. Then, practice reps and preseason games will become unofficial tryouts for many players — even those the team knows best.
“All of us quarterbacks are pushing each other and helping each other,” Heinicke said. “It is a good room.”